It’s a well-known fact that movies in the sports genre tend to be pretty hit-and-miss. Perhaps no sub-genre is a better example of that than auto racing movies. Although there have been a few classics that reflect the true nature of the sport, there have been plenty of duds as well.
Although underground racing movies such as The Fast and the Furious series have garnered great popularity, this list will focus solely on movies that are at least loosely related to NASCAR. From biographies to fiction and even animation, this list will feature a diverse array of racing movies.
Here are the top 11 auto racing movies of all time.
This 1965 movie starring James Caan is more about love triangles than auto racing in a way, but thanks to some real NASCAR racing footage, it lands at No. 11 on this list. In the movie, Caan’s character Mike Marsh is a young driver whose teammate dies in a crash at Daytona. The movie focuses on Marsh trying to mesh with new teammates as well as figure out his complicated romantic life.
The film was revolutionary in a way in that it featured actual NASCAR footage through the means of placing a camera on top of driver Larry Frank’s car. It gave viewers a unique first-person point of view. Filming was done at many of NASCAR’s most prestigious tracks, including Daytona, Atlanta and Darlington.
Speedway, a 1968 movie starring Elvis Pressley as driver Steve Grayson, is quite unlike any other film on this list in that it was a musical. Like many of Elvis’ movies, Speedway focuses mostly on his singing rather than his acting ability. In fact, Speedway was the last musical-type movie Elvis ever acted in. The plot, while unrealistic, is mildly entertaining.
Grayson’s manager Kenny Donford submits a fish tax return, leading the IRS to investigate Grayson. This leads to Grayson having to raise $145,000 through his racing ventures, otherwise he will no longer be able to afford to race. Grayson, of course, develops a romantic relationship with the IRS inspector played by Nancy Sinatra, however. All of the racing scenes were shot at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and many of NASCAR’s greatest drivers made cameo appearances, including Richard Petty, Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough.
This 2004 made-for-television movie produced by ESPN is a docudrama about the life of Dale Earnhardt who is played by Barry Pepper in the film. Although the movie was entertaining and compelling in some respects, there were a number of inaccuracies that limit it from being considered great. Most of the issues are with regards to the makes and models of cars, paint schemes on particular cars, and the way some of Earnhardt’s relationships are depicted throughout the movie.
The film featured many real-life race scenes, but most of the fabricated ones were filmed at Rockingham Speedway. This was after Rockingham lost its NASCAR races and was being used primarily as a test track. ESPN also caught a lot of flak from Earnhardt’s family due to the fact that they weren’t consulted about the script. This film may not be for NASCAR purists, but Earnhardt fans will enjoy it as it at least paints a realistic picture of Earnhardt.
In this 1982 film, Kenny Rogers plays driver Brewster Baker. While stopped at a gas station in Texas, Baker’s stock car is stripped by thieves. When Baker finally catches the thieves, he finds that they are actually six orphans who are working for the town’s corrupt sheriff. The sheriff locks up Baker, but orphans break Baker out, and Baker becomes a caregiver of sorts.
Prior to taking in the orphans, Baker was scuffling along as a driver. After making the kids his pit crew, however, Baker begins for find success on the racing circuit. The movie also stars Diane Lane and Anthony Michael Hall quite early in their respective acting careers as two of the orphans. The final race of the movie features actual footage from the 1982 Coca-Cola 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Overall, the film is extremely unrealistic, but entertaining nonetheless.
This 1977 movie is based loosely on the real-life story of Wendell Scott, the first African American drive and win a race in NASCAR. Scott is played famed comedian Richard Pryor in the movie, which is notable since Pryor certainly wasn’t known for playing serious roles. The film shows how Scott became a top driver by transporting moonshine in Virginia.
Much of the movie focuses on Scott fighting against racism in an effort to gain equality in the world of auto racing. He has to battle many white track owners in the film before finally receiving clearance to compete in NASCAR. It paints a picture of just how tough it was for minorities to break through in a traditionally white sport.
Although this movie is titled 43: The Richard Petty Story, it actually focuses much more on Richard’s father Lee Petty. Since Richard plays himself in the 1972 film and he was the premier stock car driver of the time, it was probably titled that way due to name recognition. The movie is seen through Lee’s point of view, who is played by Darren McGavin (the father from A Christmas Story).
It is quite clear that the movie was made with a very low budget and there were plenty of inaccuracies, but it did offer some insight into the Petty racing family. Due to Richard’s stature as a driver at the time, there was plenty of real racing footage which is probably what made this movie tolerable. The film also focuses on the roots of Petty Enterprises, possibly making it somewhat interesting to current NASCAR fans.
Hated by many, Stroker Ace is actually a pretty comical and passable NASCAR movie as long as the viewer doesn’t take it too seriously. Released in 1983, Stroker Ace stars Burt Reynolds as superstar NASCAR driver Stroker Ace. Although Ace is the most popular driver in the sport, he is quite mischievous, leading his sponsor to drop him. Ace then catches on with a fast food restaurant called “The Chicken Pit.”
While Ace is successful with The Chicken Pit as his sponsor, he tries to get out of his contract because the chain’s owner Clyde Torkel embarrasses Ace by having him dress up like a chicken at promotional events. Things come to a head when Torkel tells Ace that he’ll release him from his contract as long as he doesn’t win the last race of the season and win the championship. When it looks like Ace is going to lose, Torkel announces that he is released from his contract. Ace comes back, however, and wins the race and the championship while getting released from his contract, just as he wanted.
The only animated film on this list, Cars was released in 2006 by the famed Pixar animation studio. In the movie, there are no humans, only humanized automobiles. The plot focuses around rookie racecar Lightning McQueen’s quest to win the Piston Cup; clearly a play on words related to the Winston Cup. The season ends in a three-way tie for first between McQueen, Strip Weathers and Chick Hicks, leading to a match race to decide the champion.
In the week leading up to the race, McQueen gets involved in plenty of hijinks, almost forcing him to miss the race. In the race itself, McQueen decides to help the veteran Weathers who was spun out by Hicks rather than win the race. Even though McQueen doesn’t win the title, he becomes extremely popular due to his sportsmanship. Although this movie is obviously meant for kids, adult NASCAR fans can certainly enjoy it due to its many parallels to the actual sport.
This 1973 film is based on the life of legendary NASCAR driver Junior Johnson. Jeff Bridges stars in the movie as Junior Jackson who is the film version of Johnson. Writer Tom Wolfe wrote a series of articles dubbing Johnson as “The Last American Hero,” which is where the movie’s name derived from. Johnson himself praised the film as an accurate depiction of the early days of NASCAR.
In the movie, Jackson focuses on his craft as a driver and tries to raise money in order to bail his moonshining father out of jail. In NASCAR, Jackson would butt heads with his owner due to his racing style and insistence on picking his own pit crew. There are a number of excellent racing scenes in the film as well, giving it a very authentic feel. Of all the NASCAR movies ever made, it is quite possible that The Last American Hero is the most realistic.
Released in 1990, Days of Thunder stars Tom Cruise as rookie NASCAR driver Cole Trickle. In the film, Trickle is an accomplished open-wheel driver who received an offer to compete in the Winston Cup Series. Although Trickle struggles at first, he eventually gains his footing and begins to win a few races. He enters into a feud, however, with reigning Winston Cup Champion Rowdy Burns.
Their rivalry escalates during a race at Daytona where both drivers wreck and get seriously injured. In Trickle’s absence another rookie, Russ Wheeler, takes his place and excels. When Trickle returns, Wheeler stays on as his teammate. After a race won by Wheeler, Trickle spins Wheeler out because of Wheeler’s dirty racing tactics. This leads to Trickle being fired.
Trickle’s old rival Burns tells Trickle to drive his car at the Daytona 500 because he has to undergo brain surgery. Trickle then goes on to win the race by passing Wheeler on the last lap. While this may not be the most realistic auto racing movie, it certainly has its moments.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby will never be confused with a realistic NASCAR movie, but it’s tough to deny that it is without question the most hilarious and entertaining one. A serious NASCAR fan who demands hardcore racing action may not be able to fully appreciate this film, but as long as you don’t take it too seriously, Talladega Nights is a home run.
Will Ferrell stars in the movie as hot-shot driver Ricky Bobby. Ricky is extremely successful and lives by the motto “if you ain’t first, you’re last.” Ricky’s buddy Cal Naughton Jr. (played by John C. Reilly) always puts Ricky before himself, often pushing him to victory. After a fiery crash, Ricky goes insane and struggles to “go fast” anymore. Since he can’t race, Ricky’s wife leaves him for his friend Cal. This leads to Ricky’s deadbeat dad teaching him how to race again.
While this is going on, Ricky is in the middle of a heated feud with Jean Girard (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), a former Formula One driver who made the jump to NASCAR. The movie’s climax comes when Ricky enters the Talladega 500. On the final lap, after every other car in the race had been incapacitated, Ricky and Jean crash. They then race on foot to the finish line. This, of course, doesn’t count, and both drivers are disqualified for leaving their cars. Cal is declared the winner based on a technicality. This leads to Ricky realizing he took Cal for granted.